I Bury the Living (1958)

Imagine discovering that you have the power over life and death for certain persons. With a simple action you can decide who dies within the next few hours. Of course, that is not necessarily a pleasant discovery, and since you doubt that it can be true, you have to try again. And again. And even when you are entirely convinced yourself, people around you think you are crazy, and even urge you to test it upon themselves.

Such is the story of the wonderful B horror I Bury the Living. Robert has just taken over as Chairman of a quiet little cemetery, when he notices that just by putting a black pin (for deceased) in a certain grave plot on the big cemetery map, he can prematurely terminate the life of the person who has bought that plot.

Richard Boone in I Bury the Living (1958)

Surrounding the ever more confused and desperate Robert is a number of interesting characters: His supportive fiancée, the Scottish cemetery caretaker, his uncle George and a somewhat bewildered police lieutenant. All of these will react in very different ways to Robert’s problems.

Several people, apparently including Stephen King, have criticised the ending of this film. I can understand, and to some extent agree with that criticism, since the ending breaks with the film’s otherwise tense mood. The current ending also makes the film’s genre is a bit ambiguous. But I am not one to complain. On the whole, I Bury the Living is a delightful little horror/thriller.

This film is best enjoyed for the intense feeling of suspense. The plot, when you start to think about it, has a number of glaring gaps, but the music, the photo and the excellent actors give you no time to ponder over such trivialities.

Peggy Maurer and Richard Boone in I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living
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Year: 1958
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Albert Band
Stars: Richard Boone
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

Madame Beudet is smiling. She is smiling, even laughing, at her own daydreams about what might befall her husband, whom she does not love. He, hearing her laughter, pulls his own favourite practical joke, putting an empty gun to his head and squeezing the trigger.

This is one of the key scenes in The Smiling Madame Beudet (French: La souriante Madame Beudet), a strong and very well-made silent drama, which qualifies for my own top ten or fifteen list of silent movies.

Germaine Dermoz in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Madame Beudet is smiling, perhaps, as a way of dealing with the misery of her life. The film is a brilliant and finely nuanced portrait of a woman, but those who claim that it was the first truly feministic film should take a look at the ten years older Ingeborg Holm.

The Internet Archive copy I link to here has both French and German intertitles, as well as English subtitles, so it is essentially trilingual – one of the advantages of silent cinema. In case you know either French or German and would like to be rid of the subtitles, a copy of comparable quality but without subtitles is also downloadable.

The Smiling Madame Beudet was based on a play, the original French text of which is also available at the Internet Archive.

This film is best enjoyed for its exquisite imagery and visual language. Director Germaine Dulac makes use of many impressionistic techniques, providing both effect and subtlety.

Alexandre Arquillière in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

The Smiling Madame Beudet
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Year: 1923
Running time: 38 min
Language: French/German (English subtitles)
Director: Germaine Dulac
Stars: Germaine Dermoz
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (666×482)
Soundtrack: Good; orchestral music matching the film’s mood
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (227 M)

Vampyr (1932)

I think it is a fair statement that the modern horror genre was born out of a marriage between the German Expressionism's easthetics and Hollywood’s big-budget, mainstream storytelling tradition. For good or bad, that combination has dominated horror film world-wide ever since.

But there were certainly other directions it could have taken. And did, in some cases. Carl Theodor Dreyer showed us a glimpse of one possible influence of avant-garde thinking in the horror genre in his first sound film, Vampyr.

Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West) in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

In spite of the German language of this particular print, the film was produced in France. Like most French films from around this period, it has problems with the soundtrack, which is somewhat inexpertly dubbed afterwards. Look, for example, at Zéro de conduite (1933), which is even worse, and then compare with the Hollywood film White Zombie (1932). Even though the American film suffers from inferior recording equipment (compared with what would be the norm just a few years later), it sports sound recorded on location, perfectly synchronized with the images.

But that “perfect” sound comes at a prize. Another interesting comparison is how much more elegantly Dreyer was able to work with the light silent-era cameras that I assume he was still using. White Zombie, in comparison, is much more static and conventional in its imagery, and that is partly because they had to use heavier, sound-proofed cameras.

Dreyer sometimes inserts surrealistic elements, and even though the basic plot is fairly simple, he makes jumps that stretches the story’s credibility. The plot can therefore at times be difficult to follow, but that is a problem only if you expect a traditional story structure. This kind of avant-garde film is not one where comprehending is always the most important thing. Here, everything is designed to make you feel, rather than analyze. So let go your conscious mind, and allow your subconscious to guide the experience.

This film is best enjoyed for two reasons, both contributing to the tense atmosphere that is felt throughout. The first reason is Dreyer’s excellent use of camera, lighting and angles. The second is Wolfgang Zeller’s amazing score, in itself reason enough to watch the film.

Rena Mandel and Jane Mora in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr
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Year: 1932
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West)
Image quality: Acceptable (poor in some scenes)
Resolution: Medium (574×434; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,018 M)

La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928)

So, here we go again. Another new year begins, along with the usual celebrations. A few close friends; good food and wine; some fireworks. It is at times like these that one should perhaps, at least for a minute, stop and think about life. About how fortunate we are to be born at a time and place where there is really very little to worry about. Jean Renoir helps us find that reflective mood, through his 1928 masterful adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl).

Manuel Raaby and Catherine Hessling in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

It was just before the great breakthrough of sound film, and the silent film medium was at its artistic peak. Europe was spearheading the development through filmmakers like Fritz Lang (e.g. Metropolis), Carl Theodor Dreyer (e.g. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc) and F.W. Murnau (e.g. Der letzte Mann). La petite marchande d’allumettes falls right into this tradition with its splendid use of composition, cutting, lighting and costumes.

I guess you know the story already from your childhood. A poor match girl goes out on New Year’s Eve to sell matches, even though her shoes and clothes are pitifully inadequate. When she fails to sell any, she lies down in the cold snow to dream about the toys she saw in a shop window. Renoir’s dream sequence bears traces of the German expressionism, which was extremely strong in Germany about this time.

This film is best enjoyed as a fine example of late 1920s European filmmaking. The film is short, but given the story it sets out to tell, it could not have been made much longer and still kept the interest up.

Jean Storm, Catherine Hessling and Amy Wells in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

La petite marchande d’allumettes
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Year: 1928
Running time: 32 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Catherine Hessling
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; harmonium music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: H.264 (189 M)

Körkarlen (1921)

If you have been reading my posts about Ingeborg Holm (1913), Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918) and Klostret i Sendomir (1920), then you know that I, along with many others, consider Victor Sjöström to be one of the greatest directors of the 1910s and early 1920s. Perhaps the peak of his creative period came with Körkarlen, best known in English as The Phantom Carriage.

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen is a many-layered story about alcoholism, poverty, death and humiliation, but also about love, faith and atonement. It often balances on a thing edge between realism and sentimentality, and mostly manages to stay clear of any excesses in either direction.

The story is based on a novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (Nobel prize winner), and closely follows the original. At the core of the story, we find the Salvation Army sister Edit. She has been trying to save David from his sinful life in alcholism, but David has no wish to repent. That is when Death’s coachman (who drives around to collect the souls of the dead) steps in, and when David appears to die after a drunken brawl on New Year’s Eve, the coachman takes David on a journey through time and space to make him see the wrongs of his life.

The score of this version must be characterized as ambient. It is very mood-setting, but sometimes it seems to miss the mood a bit. On the whole, it works well, but I am sure better scores exist.

This film is best enjoyed as a true classic and an excellent example of Swedish film making around 1920. If anyone sees parallels with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that is no coincidence (compare Scrooge (1951)). Lagerlöf said herself that the story was inspired by Dickens, though this is far more than just a cheap imitation. Körkarlen deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits.

Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Language: Swedish; English subtitles
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

Ich klage an (1941)

Over 70,000 people were killed as a direct result of Hitler’s Aktion T4 in the early stages of World War II. Some were jews, but many more were mentally or physically handicapped children and adults that, so Hitler said, would have meant an unnecessary cost for the “Vaterland” in times of war. As terrible as it is to think about all that, there was one arguably good thing to come out of that terror, namely the propaganda film Ich klage an, financed and produced to gain popular support for governmental use of so-called euthanasia (mercy killings).

Paul Hartmann and Heidemarie Hatheyer in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Thomas Heyt is a medical doctor with a good career and a loving wife. But his life is turned upside down when his wife Hanna becomes the victim of severe, painful and potentially lethal mutiple sclerosis. Heyt seeks in vain for a cure, but Hanna’s condition becomes ever worse. She asks him to take her life before her pain becomes unbearable, which he eventually does. This, however, is not the end of the film, because Heyt thereafter has to stand trial for his actions, accused of murdering his wife.

When I first saw the film, I had no idea about its connection with Aktion T4. Nevertheless, I expected a propaganda film, but I was surprised to see how mild the propaganda is. So mild, in fact, that if it were not for its connections with Nazism, it could very well still be used to argue for voluntary euthanasia (and sometimes is, for that matter). The film does not in any way bring forth the subject of involuntary euthanasia that was actually the foremost purpose of Aktion T4, but it stays ethically within what several democratic countries legally allow today, apparently including the state of Oregon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the film came too late to save the project that had spawned it. In what has been described as the only successful popular protest against Hitler, public opinion was so strongly against the project that it actually had to be cancelled in 1941, only five days before Ich klage an premiered, heavily censored due to the criticism. (I am not sure whether the copy at the Internet Archive is the original or censored.) But even though Aktion T4 had been officially cancelled, Euthanasia according to the guidelines adopted by the project continued in many places throughout the war, killing tens of thousands more.

The available copy of this film has a unique feature, one that I have never seen before. The initial frames of the video file contain a slideshow with very interesting background information about Aktion T4 and about the film itself. If you have a player that can freeze the film on the first frame, and then step frame by frame, I can highly recommend these interesting slides, either before or after watching the film itself. The slides are pro-euthanasia, as is the film itself, but regardless of your own opinion on the subject, they provide a good historical background.

This film is best enjoyed in one of two very different ways. It can either be seen from a historical perspective, remembering that it comes from the same ideas and ideals that led up to the holocaust. Or it can be seen purely as a work of art: a film which, though controversial, is rich with excellent dramaturgy and acting. Indeed, these two perspectives may not be possible to disassociate entirely; they certainly complement one another and provide the watching with further depths.

Paul Hartmann in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Ich klage an
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner
Stars: Paul Hartmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (661 M)